Bilingual Writer’s Block in the Time of Covid

On not writing in two languages:

By Ali Shakir

I wake around 7 am every day, take a shower, check the often-disconcerting latest news, and then head to one of the cafes in nearby Botany Mall to write. Slowly sipping a Long Black, I recollect the details of last night’s dream, where I was either voiceless or motionless. And sometimes both.

It doesn’t take Freud to realize that my subconscious is throwing up the guilt I’d been feeding it for lacking productivity since the virus outbreak. It would take Freud, though, to explain why—now that I know the cause—I’m still seeing those nightmares.

I put down my cup, take a deep breath, and open a blank Word document on my laptop, aspiring to embark on a long-term book project, which takes somewhere between two to five years to finish. I keep switching back and forth between Arabic and English, write a few words here, a title there, and then quickly delete everything. I feel an instant drain of energy, my fingers freeze, and a painful headache ensues.

… Oh no, not again!

After more than a decade of freelance writing, the symptoms are all too familiar. I won’t be able to put down anything meaningful. If I tried to resist, my body would be more than capable of fighting back: palpitations, stomach upset, fever even. I surely wouldn’t want to have that last one these days. Clinging to the faintest of hope, I keep the Word doc open, and head to news websites for Covid-19 updates. The symptoms can be confused with those of a cold or a flu, I read for the zillionth time. 

… Am I suffering from a “common” writer’s block, or have I caught a deadly literary virus? Will I survive? 

A short stroll down the mall seems like a perfect distraction from negative thoughts. I put my laptop back in its case and leave the café.

Through the display window, my eyes meet those of a young girl inside a bookshop, smiling with anticipation. Am I going to be their next customer? Wait! There are no customers, the place is empty. I smile back and check their new titles, wishing I could bring myself to buy one, just to keep those young women and men employed, but nothing seems to interest me. I settle for a Sudoku book for my mother.

My thoughts drift to Mutanabbi in downtown Baghdad. I used to visit the ancient street—named after the celebrated tenth century poet—once a month when I lived there, browsing new and second-hand books in its shops, stalls, and pavements. I often left carrying a small pile for as little as the equivalent of one US dollar. Iraq was suffering under global sanctions then. The dinar, once equal to more than three US dollars, had become worth less than a tenth of a cent.

In 2007, one year after my departure, Mutanabbi was hit by a car bomb that killed more than twenty book lovers, and left the street covered with blood-stained pages. It reopened the next year, nonetheless. I wonder how its sellers and regulars are faring in this insane time of Corona.

Many new publishing houses have opened in Iraq over the past decade, I’m told. The industry is increasingly reliant on the publishers’ participations in the Arab book fairs, which were cancelled due to the pandemic. Nearly all Iraqi publishers, for logistical reasons, have offices in Beirut; a beautiful city that has witnessed in 2020 alone the collapse of the Lebanese financial system, violent clashes between angry protestors and security forces, consecutive political crises and power vacuums, and the virus outbreak. As if that’s not enough, a massive blast at the wharf rocked Beirut in August. It’s been placed among the largest non-nuclear explosions of all time. 

I place the Sudoku book in my laptop case and think: If nothing is relevant enough to read, why should anything be relevant enough to write about? What am I supposed to write, anyway? Fiction? The surreality of our daily lives exceeds most potential story premises: masked faces, panic-shopping, closed borders, empty airports, grounded airplanes, Zoom-conferencing and schooling, megalopolises turned into ghost towns under lockdowns or curfews, fear, anxiety, etc. … And I thought George Orwell was too dystopian, huh!

There’s plenty of room for darkness in the realm of literature. I’ve experienced it firsthand, given the fact that most of my writing is indeed dark. In nature, some plants love to bathe in sunlight, others thrive in the dark, but nothing can grow on quicksand, and that’s exactly where many of us writers are desperately trying to sow their creative seeds. 

Yes, I can write about my confusion and uncertainty—I actually am, but where to go from there/here? Once the virus is beaten, everyone will want to turn the page on this dreadful chapter and resume their normal lives, but we don’t know when and if that’s going to happen. The only certainty we have is that there’s a going to be a global depression. It’s already looming large. Will people still be able to spend money on books and reading while struggling to make ends meet?

When I started writing opinion articles and essays twelve years ago, I thought I might not live long enough to say all the things I wanted to say, to tell all the stories I wanted to tell. I was naïve enough to assign myself the ambitious mission of bridging the gap between my two worlds: The East, where I was born, and The West, where I’m living now, so to speak. My bilingualism was supposed to come in handy, and it did. Not anymore, though. 

In a matter of weeks, the wide gap was bridged by our human fear, a universal language of sorts. No interpreters required! 

Despite physical distancing, we are closer to one another than we have ever been, or wanted to be. And little do our stories about the past matter when all eyes are set on the future, and what it holds for us.

Ali Shakir ( is an Iraqi-born, New Zealand-based architect and author of A Muslim on the Bridge, Cafe Fayrouz, and Saddam and I and the Stockholm Syndrome. In 2020, his translation رسائل فيوليت: جولة في حياة يهود بغداد (Memories of Eden by Violette Shamash) was published, and he contributed to Ko Aotearoa Tatou – We Are New Zealand: An Anthology (Otago University).

1 Comment

  1. Great article, an interesting and also inspiring read. it is interesting that you thought of and referred to Freud and George Orwell in your article. I supposed both were in search of and in understanding the human minds. You are right to ask the key question “why”, why would we relate to anything and especially when are faced with many challenges in life, be it COVID, economic depression or personal challenges. We are who we are today, some of us want to forget, some want to make sense of ourselves and our world and some want to imagine a different world.

    You certainly have the material and the talent and skill to create and get yourselves out of quicksands! You have no choice but to keep on trying.

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